FBI Is Investigating 25 Paintings Allegedly by Basquiat on View at the Orlando Museum of Art

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Jean-Michel Basquiat

FBI agents raided the Orlando Art Museum. The agents confiscated 25 paintings of the disputed Jean-Michel Basquiat. The FBI Art Crimes Team has been investigating the authenticity of the artworks since they were discovered in a vault in Los Angeles in 2012.

Attention to the paintings intensified in February after the museum presented them to the public before the opening of the exhibition called “Heroes and Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat”.

Museum spokeswoman Emilia Burmas-Fry wrote in a statement emailed to the Times that the museum would continue to cooperate with the F.B.I. investigation. She said that they still have not been led to believe that the museum has been or is the subject of any investigation. And they still view their participation solely as a witness to the facts.

The exhibit was planned to run until June 2023. But according to Burmas-Fry, the owners of the painting did not renew the contract with the museum. The exhibit was supposed to close and travel to Italy. The exhibit featured 25 brightly colored cardboard slabs, which the museum says were found by Basquiat in late 1982 while living and working in a studio below the home of art dealer Larry Gagosian in Venice, California. Questions of their authenticity arose almost immediately after their debut in Orlando.

Notably, the Times reported in February that the cardboard used in at least one of the paintings contained the FedEx font, which experts say was not created until 1994, six years after Basquiat’s death. The search warrant affidavit reviewed by the Times was issued in response to the possibility that there were conspiracy and wire fraud crimes involved.

The F.B.I. investigation uncovered false information related to the alleged prior ownership of the paintings, as well as attempts to sell paintings using false provenance, and bank records show possible investment in works of art that are not genuine. According to the owners of the paintings, Jean-Michel Basquiat allegedly sold the works directly to television writer Thad Mumford for $5,000 in cash without Gagosian’s knowledge.

The dealer, in a statement to the Times, said the scenario of their creation sounds extremely unlikely. According to the museum, Mumford left them in storage for 25 years until he paid the rent for the space, and the contents were auctioned off in 2012.

The collection was bought by art dealer and antique dealer William Force and his financier Lee Manjin for about $15,000. A stake in six of the 25 paintings was bought by Los Angeles trial attorney Piers O’Donnell.

However, Elizabeth Rivas, an FBI special agent, stated in an affidavit that Mumford told her in 2014 that he had never bought Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art and was unaware of any of Basquiat’s art in his locker. In 2017, he signed an affidavit stating that he had never met Basquiat. Mumford died in 2018.

The owners of the paintings, as well as the director and executive director of the museum, Aaron de Groft, claimed that the works are Basquiat originals, citing expert testimony. Mumford’s find could be worth a combined $100 million if proven authentic.

The Jean-Michel Basquiat estate dissolved its authentication committee in 2012. Other artist estates, including Andy Warhol’s estate, have stopped authenticating works due to costly litigation.

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